Sad times in a proof-of-concept.
In the past decade, there’s been an increase in RPGMaker games focused on story and character interaction, often sidelining the RPG aspects or removing them entirely. One of the best examples of this is Freebird Games’s To The Moon, a sci-fi drama about altering the memory of a dying man. To The Moon is focused on its characters, story, and futuristic setting. However, its gameplay is simplistic, involving navigating the protagonist scientist characters through memory landscapes and solving simple puzzles. The rise of itch.io also helped encourage the rise of non-standard RPGMaker games, since the site allows for easier hosting of indie titles without having to traverse the Steam approval process. Plus, fan translations of Japanese RPGMaker games are surprisingly plentiful, thanks to contributors like vgperson, who also worked on many official paid Steam releases.
Using RPGMaker for narrative-driven adventure games rather than sword-and-sorcery RPGs is nothing new. Indie Japanese horror games made using RPGMaker are practically a genre on their own, popularized by fan translators and Let’s Plays. Fun fact: while Yume Nikki is probably best known for popularizing Japanese RPGMaker horror games amongst an English-speaking audience, many aspects of its stylistic blend of surrealistic horror can be traced back to the 1998 game Palette, which later received a PS1 re-release.
When putting together a list of my favorite video games of all time, one of the titles that consistently breaks my top 5 and has yet to leave is Patapon 2. Standing alongside games like the original Bioshock, Nier Gestalt, and Earthbound is a PSP game about using war drums to command a singing army of eyeball creatures. My particular enjoyment with the Patapon games (specifically 1 & 2) is something I’ve hawked for years but have yet to actually articulate, so why not finally do so?
The original Patapon was released in 2007, during a time when PSP developers realized that yes, you can develop games specific to the console that aren’t janky action games (ports like Tomb Raider, Star Wars Battlefront or otherwise) that function better with two analogue sticks. A direct sequel was released two years later, and the final game in the trilogy came out in 2011. The games were iconic enough to warrant a bizarrely specific stage appearance in Playstation All-Stars, wherein the patapon beat the tar out of God of War’s version of Hades. 2017 brought an HD remaster of Patapon 1, with a remaster of 2 following a year after. Oh, and apparently the games were popular enough to warrant a Chinese knock-off iOS/Android game called Patapon-Siege of Wow!.
Art from Rolito’s website.
Muse Dash was originally released in 2018 by Peropero Games, an independent game development group from Guangzhou, China. According to an in-game loading screen tip, the game has seven devs. The game is available for mobile phones, the Nintendo Switch, and the PC through Steam.
Muse Dash is a rhythm game that borrows a few cues from action and platforming titles. One of the game’s playable girls – punkish Rin, mischievous Buro, and elegant Marija – runs through a stage while punting enemies and dodging obstacles that fly down the two on-screen lanes. The objective is simple: punt enemies, collect notes and hearts and try not to die from spikes, all to the beat of a song. If this sounds an awful lot like Game Freak’s 2013 3DS game Harmoknight, well, it is, but with more electronic music, faster gameplay and the ability to play as an anime girl in a maid outfit.
Somehow I didn’t break my combo while taking this screencap.
An ode to the sound novel. The once-popular medium for Japanese adventure games has sadly fallen into obscurity after being mostly replaced by the contemporary visual novel, with its character sprites and dating sims. While sound novels never really took off among English-speakers (07th Expansion’s works aside), there are a few significant sound novels that have ties to otherwise fairly popular/well-known works.
So, first off, what the heck are sound novels? Early in the 90’s, game developer Chunsoft (well before merging with company Spike and being here fore known as Spike Chunsoft since 2012) pioneered sound novels with their title Otogiriso. Sound novels are technically a precursor to visual novels and are characterized by the usage of text fully overlaying still backgrounds with emphasis on sound design through music and effects. Sound novels also employ the typical visual novel gameplay by means of multiple choices with branching story routes and multiple endings. Many sound novels were mystery or horror-flavored, though according to this Giant Bomb list, there was also a period of anime-spinoff sound novels landing on the Nintendo DS. Nowadays, sound novels are a rarity and visual novels have largely overtaken them as a medium.
With that intro out of the way, let’s get to the focus of this article: weird sound novel spin-offs (and one that isn’t a spin-off but led to one more well known than the parent game). The games I’ll be covering include Radical Dreamers, Play Novel: Silent Hill, and 428: Shibuya Scramble.
A specific struggle I’ve had over the past few years getting immersed with rhythm games is finding others who are as invested in the games’ aesthetics as they are in gameplay and track selection. Since rhythm games are skill-focused like fighting games, I suppose the focus on scores and ability should be expected, but I feel this does a disservice to the games themselves especially when certain rhythm games go out of their way to be more distinctive. Some of the more ‘hardcore’ rhythm games, like Beatmania or DJMax have some aesthetic UI attempts (I’m not talking solely about song selection art, by the way), but they mostly seem to be window dressings to catch the eyes of would-be players. I’m also not specifically referring to the ‘weirder’ end of rhythm games like Gitaroo Man or Gal Metal, which push for more general eccentricity, but games like my ever-favored IA/VT Colorful and the Taiko no Tatsujin series which aim for a fun aesthetic design AND challenging gameplay. One company that hits a strong aesthetic design point is Rayark, a Taiwanese game development studio formed in 2011.
Ninja waifus are cool and all, but that’s not really why you’re playing Beatmania, right?
Roughly a year ago, I managed to finish playing Chrono Cross, the interesting but messy sequel to Chrono Trigger. While I have plenty of issues with CC, one of the more glaring problems I noted with the game was its bloated cast. Yet, looking back on my criticisms of CC made me question why I had this specific problem, compared to other games with many characters, such as Suikoden or Fire Emblem. It turns out that this problem is more multifaceted than it initially seems.
I want to discuss Chrono Cross’s cast specifically. The various party members you can recruit in Chrono Cross fall under three specific categories: a) are heavily involved in the story (Harle, Viper, Karsh, Zoah, Marcy), b) are involved in the story only during specific points (Guile, Nikki, Korcha, Irenes, Sneff), and finally have little to no direct involvement with the story at all (Poshul, Draggy, Starky, Skelly). To give specific examples, you encounter gruff guy Karsh and his band of goons early on as an antagonistic force, but they end up teaming up with protagonist Serge later when story points shift. Meanwhile, German mermaid Irenes is only directly involved in a specific story point involving the help of a certain pirate, while the undead clown Skelly is linked to an optional sidequest. Chrono Cross has an interesting plot conceit by way of jumping between two different versions of the same world, but the bloated cast (and some of the game’s bizarrely confusing/cryptic writing) takes focus off the more relevant characters.
You wouldn’t expect a skeleton dressed like this to have one of the most heartbreaking sidequests, hmm?
Video game soundtracks never fail to amaze me with how varied they’ve been able to become in recent years. Touching on everything from heavy synth chords, ominous symphonic choirs, powerful classical tones, and urgent electronic suites, the diversity in sound is endless. Nonetheless, I had an overly-specific query regarding video game soundtracks: what about soundtracks for fake games? Finding Equip’s Synthetic Core 88 (which I discuss more in detail later) set me off on a bizarre quest to find concept albums themed around this idea. This was harder to find than expected, but I figured this idea was too cool to not discuss anyway, so I’ll go on what I was able to find.
The first album I’ll showcase is bird world by Leon Chang. While I mostly associate Chang with his wonderful regular twitter posts reminding everyone to play Star Ocean: The Second Story, his music work is a different (but neat) creature of the feathered variety.
bird world is the soundtrack to a cute tiny bird-themed RPG about an avian fellow named Leon (ha) who sets out on an adventure after meeting with a mysterious, amnesiac stranger. Chang even went as far as to include a little illustrated PDF with the album download that harkens back to the good old days of video games including physical manuals with little blurbs about the settings and characters. He even includes gameplay tips and level-up skills for the characters! That’s dedication, folks!
The best way to describe bird world is damn catchy. bird world feels like an unrestrained love letter to thematic video game sub-levels with a heavy smattering of indulgent sampling ranging from Ape Escape monkey sneezing to the Metal Gear alert sound. The result is a varied, upbeat mix of music that lands straight into the realm of embodying the game’s worlds themselves. Off the bat, the relaxing main menu theme and quirky welcome to bird world song quickly plop you into the grasp of the ‘game’, right after you’ve torn off the plastic wrap. From the tropical and floaty notes of lychee beach to the mellow and cozy side of winter melon valley, Chang does an exceptional job giving each track a specific flair. My personal favorite track, noodle cave, blankets you in fast-paced beats that get you pumped as the end of the ‘game’ approaches.
My only complaint with bird world is the soundtrack’s overall form, which, while fun and amazing to listen to, doesn’t quite feel like an actual soundtrack. If anything, bird world feels like a remixed version of an already existing soundtrack, though I’m not sure if Chang was trying to evoke a specific era of video games or a console. By no means is this a bad thing, and I don’t think Chang was purposely trying to evoke an older-sounding soundtrack by using something like older recording technology or chip-tune music. Just be aware that bird world is its own distinctive beast that tries more to evoke the general structure of a video game soundtrack.
The next album of interest is Synthetic Core 88 by Equip. I found this piece through Yetee thanks to Drew Wise’s eye-catching cover art for the vinyl and cassettes, which are stylized after Japanese soundtrack packaging and even include fake screencaps for the ‘game’. Like bird world, Synthetic Core 88 is conceptualized as an RPG soundtrack, this time centered around a girl named Flora getting lost in a dreary post-apocalyptic future world and fighting for survival. Synthetic Core 88 takes heavy cues from SNES-era games, with Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VI being obvious influences, yet Equip manages to give the soundtrack a distinctive, smooth flair.
As Equip states on their bandcamp page, vaporwave and new age sounds are a major influential factor within their work, and it shows. While Synthetic Core 88 embodies a lot of respect towards old-school RPG’s, there’s still a sense of unique mellowness that Equip manages to incorporate in many of the tracks, such as in ‘New GAIA’ and ‘Flora Awakens’. Even the more upbeat tracks such as ‘Wholehearted Elation’ and ‘SILPH6’ evoke feelings of urgency mixed with a certain distance. There’s a strong sense of dreaminess tinged with nostalgia that permeates many of the tracks.
While I wish it was easier to find more ‘fake videogame soundtrack’ concept albums, I was pleased with both bird world and Synthetic Core 88. Both albums’ artists manage to take the concepts in different directions, resulting in some cool and catchy musical work that harken back to various flavors of video game sounds. It’s definitely a neat concept that I’d love to see grow as time goes on.
Final Fantasy VIII is a strange and somewhat frustrating game for me to discuss in nearly any context because the game inexplicably embodies elements that I adore and despise in many Final Fantasy titles, as well as video games as a whole. In VIII‘s case, the otherwise interesting sci-fi elements and world building are unfortunately undercut by the game’s messy story, bizarre plot reveals and hilariously unbalanced stat modifying system. Nonetheless, I feel that Final Fantasy VIII manages to succeed at telling a story about adolescent conflict present within a specific setting, and the reasonable problems that arise as a result. Furthermore, I also think this interpretation of an adolescent-focused story has the potential to be utilized in plenty of other stories. Please note this article will spoil major story elements in Final Fantasy VIII.
A major element present within Final Fantasy VIII‘s world building is the military academies known as Gardens, which train young individuals to become members of SeeD, an elite mercenary group. While the SeeD members are usually hired to provide military support or perform covert missions, it is revealed later in the story that the SeeD’s primary purpose is to defeat evil Sorceresses, human women who possess powerful magic capabilities. For the most part, the Gardens and the SeeDs commandeer a specific level of respect within VIII‘s setting (though appropriately, certain NPC’s express annoyance at the overt military presence in certain cities), but as a result nobody seems to question the fact that SeeD members are explicitly required to apply between the ages of 15 and 19.
While most games focused on a “teens in the military” type of story would probably not care to explore the obvious issues of having adolescents in this setting, Final Fantasy VIII does the opposite; VIII highlights some of the issues that would logically come from using teenage soldiers in such a world, but does so in an indirect way.
Riding off the tailcoats of Francisco’s recent article, one of the more import-friendly genres for curious gaijin is rhythm games. There are the occasional titles that do require knowledge of Japanese, like Uta Kumi 575, but most can be played easily enough after you’ve learned to fumble through menus. On this note, I decided to take my first plunge into import gaming with IA/VT Colorful.
IA/VT Colorful was released in 2015 for the PS Vita after experiencing delays for nearly a year. The game was directed by Kenichiro Takaki, best known for directing the Senran Kagura titles, and published by Marvelous. As the title suggests, the game’s songs were composed using 1st Place Co.’s Vocaloid IA, whose voicebank is provided by Japanese singer Lia.
SeleP could make a song about a yandere knitting club & I’d probably still love it.
My personal experience with RPGs isn’t a particularly complicated history. It started when I played Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets for the Game Boy Color in elementary school. At the time, I was pretty clueless about how exactly the game worked, which unintentionally made the game harder as a result, but I wasn’t deterred away from the genre. I’ve indulged in many different RPG titles since then and I’ve found it interesting how certain games manage to keep their mechanics distinctive. For example, both Dragon Quest VI and Final Fantasy VI have the core of turn-based RPGs, but manage to play out in completely different ways. Final Fantasy VI emphasizes using magic and characters’ special abilities in fights while Dragon Quest VI encourages players to keep a balanced party with the usage of job classes. On this topic of game mechanics, I took a look at Contact, a lesser-known RPG awash in its own variety of mechanics.
Contact was developed by Grasshopper Manufactures, best known for their action titles such as No More Heroes, Shadows of the Damned and Killer is Dead, for the Nintendo DS in 2006. However, Contact was not directed by Grasshopper Manufacture’s iconic CEO Goichi Suda (aka Suda51) but instead directed by Akira Ueda, who had previously worked on games such as Secret of Mana and Shining Soul.
Not like you’re gonna give me another choice…